On the Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream menu, there are five kinds of vanilla, five chocolates, three strawberries, and special flavors including durian (that stinky “King of Fruits”), MothaKnucker (spicy peanut butter–caramel), and labne sorbet. There are forty limited-time-only flavors developed each year with chefs including Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Marco Canora, and April Bloomfield. There are sundaes designed especially with kids in mind, and there are very grown-up concoctions like the New God Flow (with Melting Raw Milk ice cream, Japanese white bread, and caramelized honey). Twenty-three toppings range from classic fudge and whipped cream to pickled pineapple and sesame honeycomb. The totality of this menu may scream creativity and innovation, but for owner and ice cream mastermind Nicholas Morgenstern, it’s all a part of running a healthy business on the sales of a dessert mainstay.
Morgenstern’s business title is hard to define. He’s a pastry chef, formerly of Daniel, Gramercy Tavern, and the General Greene (where he also independently owned an ice cream cart), among others. He’s the restaurateur behind GG’s (formerly Goat Town) in the East Village and El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette on the Lower East Side. And he’s the sole owner of Morgenstern’s, having put the entirety of his savings into the spot in 2013. He’s organized, values leadership skills in himself and those who work with him, and spent years sacrificing his own lifestyle to save enough scratch that he’d be free to create without restriction.
“Maybe three weeks out, I transferred the last of my savings and was like, ‘I have forty-five hundred bucks in the bank — I hope this works,’ ” he tells the Voice. “The store was named after me, and this was it.”
The resulting success requires what Morgenstern calls a “populist approach” to ice cream. This means that there should be at least three things every person who walks in the door needs to try. Then, the fantasy the flavor descriptions inspire has to be satisfied by how the ice cream itself tastes.
The varying techniques used in the coffee offerings best exemplify this ideal. For the Vietnamese Coffee — the most concentrated of the coffee flavors — high quantities of freshly ground beans are steeped for a short time in the dairy base. The high volume of beans ensures the strong flavor, and the minimal steeping time guarantees low astringency. “It’s a pain in the ass to make and takes two people, but when you do it that way you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this really tastes like coffee,’ ” Morgenstern promises.
By contrast, the Lemon Espresso combines thirty or forty shots of freshly pulled espresso to the base and — in a nod to the new Japanese trend of serving espresso with shiso and the age-old Italian tradition of serving it with a lemon peel — is brightened with shiso leaves. “It’s a really interesting combination, and nothing you’d normally think of,” Morgenstern says. “So to me, right now, that’s a compelling flavor.”
All flavors employ specific techniques and individual recipes; there is no singular base recipe that gets modified by the addition of ingredients. Morgenstern doesn’t use stabilizers, and — to further his mission of making sure that the flavors taste like the ingredients they promise — he uses relatively low amounts of sugar. Various freezers keep them at precise temperatures.
At the height of the summer season, around fifteen employees work stock, production, and sales. “We take all that stuff seriously,” he says. “We run about fifty flavors at a time, and that’s as much as I can do here. You have to understand that it’s a small store, but it has a big heart and it runs really hard.”
Hard work bleeds into his partnerships with guest chefs, too.
“When we write the menu, I have to stand behind every single thing we do, including hot dog ice cream with Daniel Boulud,” he explains. “That’s some weird shit. That’s at the very edge where I’m like, ‘This is too far on the gimmick zone.’ But it’s Daniel, and he has a really strong understanding of what it takes to do that. So we did it.”
The hot-dog-flavored ice cream, slathered in cabbage slaw, raspberry catsup, and Dijon honey mustard, was, indeed, unexpected for most eaters. But it tasted like hot dogs, and it worked. So did Morgenstern’s Batali-partnered Molto Mario’s Modena Creamsicle with sour-cherry sorbet and mascarpone ice cream, as well as his April Bloomfield–inspired Banoffee with banana, shortbread, and dulce de leche. Morgenstern wouldn’t turn out the fish sauce flavor proposed by the team from Vietnamese restaurant Bunk-Ker…but their shiso, lemongrass, Thai purple basil, Vietnamese mint, and chocolate chunk wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mint chocolate chip, either.
“It’s a dichotomy of being open — staying open to new ideas and new things — but also sticking to what you know how to do well,” he says of his partnerships. “The product has to be incredible. If I didn’t stick to my identity and know that, then we would just make stuff and it wouldn’t be good. It has to be really good.”
The Black Coconut Ash is a self-created flavor Morgenstern was really excited about when he put it on the menu a year ago. It initially sold without much fanfare, but “then all of a sudden it went bananas and I was like, ‘Sweet,’ ” he says. “You can critique and decide whether that attention is warranted or not. But let’s rewind ten years to when I was at a restaurant. If I was like, ‘Check this out, this is coconut ash…’ and the chef was like ‘Meh,’ this would never have come about. I love that this is my store, and this thing I thought was cool is attached to my store, and this thing is now getting attention. I’m lucky.”
Most of the flavors, though, speak to the childhood memories that eating ice cream brings to the surface. “Ice cream is, for most people, the first sweet thing they’ve ever had. Your parents probably melted some on their finger and put it in your mouth,” Morgenstern says. “And so it creates a really strong connection for 99 percent of the population. I see them at the register — it’s like seeing a psychiatric evaluation when someone chooses their flavor.”
To Morgenstern, figuring out how to please all those people is the most fun part of his job: “It’s like writing an album: How does it all go together, what is it going to be, and how is it going to look?”
When he eats ice cream for pleasure, it’s Madagascar Vanilla in a kid cone. “For all the pressure and stress that I deal with to do the job — to make sure that everything is held together, dealing with lawyers, making sure that the air-conditioning is functioning, doing an event outside — when I get to sit down and eat an ice cream, when I get to let go and feel goofy and not worry about it and let it be fun, that’s the flavor that does it for me.”
Yep, Black Ash and Madagascar Vanilla. That’s the populist approach.